“Avengers: Infinity War” is a big, sprawling movie that depicts a struggle against a supervillain named Thanos, confronting a great many characters from the Marvel Comics Universe, including the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor. Strange, and Spider-Man. Thanos is an interesting character because his motives are a bit different than those of the usual superpowered bad guy. He does not want to rule the universe, but rather kill half of the intelligent beings in it. He is motivated to attempt this mother of all genocides by what he thinks is the best of all reasons.

The supervillain as a population bomb hysteric

Thanos has concluded that unrestricted population growth inevitably leads to mass famine and hence mass death. If half the population on every planet in the universe suddenly is not there, then the problem is solved and a utopia of abundance results. After spending a long time setting about this goal the old fashioned way, by invading individual planets and putting half their populations to death with armies equipped with firearms, Thanos decides to acquire all six infinity stones to give him the power to kill half the universe with a snap of his fingers. Most of the movie is about the war to stop the supervillain from doing so.

One would think that stopping population growth by mass genocide is something only a comic book supervillain would conceive of.

In fact, back in the 1970s, many viewed unrestricted population growth to be such a problem that at least one famous Science Fiction Writer suggested that genocide on a planetary scale might be a viable option.

Isaac Asimov as a Malthusian

Thomas Malthus, who lived in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, was the first thinker who concluded that population growth must outstrip the level of food production.

The theory was given popular exposure by a 1968 book “The Population Bomb” written by Paul Ehrlich. The book postulated that mass starvation would occur in the 1970s and 1980s bringing about the collapse of civilization unless population growth was severely curtailed.

“The Population Bomb” led to a wave of repressive policies in the developing world that were designed to restrict population growth, including forced sterilizations, mandatory abortions, and China’s disastrous one-child policy.

However, the celebrated science fiction writer Isaac Asimov suggested, in the form of a 1976 short story, “The Winnowing” a solution much like Thanos attempts to carry out. Asimov explores the practical and ethical aspects of killing a random number of people in the developing world by poisoning their food aid. Asimov was not a megalomaniacal super villain. He was a humanist and considered himself a liberal on most political issues.

Ironically, the green revolution and the tendency of societies to have fewer children when they reach a certain level of prosperity rendered Ehrlich's bold predictions of disaster to be overly pessimistic. Few people think that population growth is an unmanageable problem, a fact that makes one wonder whether Thanos is just insane. A dangerous thing when combined with almost god-like powers.